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Jamaica Plain man tells the story of how he came to Occupy Boston protest

Posted by Meena Ramakrishnan  November 15, 2011 10:36 AM

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The chill breeze rattles the walls of the blue tarp tents. The sun hides behind the clouds on this day in early November, causing people to fold their arms tightly to their chests. It’s a cold day for Occupy Boston.

Barak Lavi, a former Jamaica Plain resident and long-time activist, has been part of the Occupy Boston protest, which began on Sept. 30, since Day 4. While other protestors have the financial means to spend time at the gathering, Lavi is among a group of activists who lack the means to live away from the tents. He became homeless in September, then was hospitalized for several weeks for a medical problem.

He walked out of the hospital and joined the Occupy Boston protest.

"It takes a certain level of luxury or a certain level of lack to be here," said Lavi, 30, a one-time pre-school teacher who had participated in anti-war and anti-globalization protests -- under better personal circumstances. He is among a group of protestors making plans to stay through the winter -- plans that have lawyers for Occupy Boston going to court this week to ask protection for their encampment at Dewey Square.

“The Occupy movement is the most serious civil disobedience I have ever been a part of. Compared to other protests, this is a bonfire next to a candle,” Lavi said.

Lavi's slide into homelessness came after he was forced to give up his teaching job because of medical complications he says were caused by untreated diabetes. He returned to the Boston area, where he had lived as a child, after attending college in Ohio for early childhood education and then moving to Connecticut to teach preschool for four years. He said the pay was good but that the hours were minimal, requiring him to work multiple retail jobs to make ends meet.

None of the jobs provided health insurance, he said, and he was not able to receive medical treatment to prevent lasting damage from diabetes. He said his illness forced him to give up teaching -- a career he loved.

“Teaching children was a way to actually help the world. It allowed me to teach kids how to think for themselves. I was really discouraged with society after I couldn’t teach anymore," he explained.

The Occupy Boston movement has given him a different sense of purpose. No stranger to protest movements, Lavi was one of the estimated 1 million participants to walk in the anti-war march in NYC in March 2003. But he said that eight-hour march does not compare to occupying a space 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last month. Lavi said he is actually grateful to find himself in the right place, at the right time, in Boston.

“I am here because we claim to be a government by the people, for the people and of the people. That’s not what we’re seeing in America today," he said. "I’m down here because people are finally standing up against the system and demanding that their voices be heard."

The make-up and motivation of the Occupy movement has "confounded analysts, commentators in the press, and academic specialists," said Dr. Cyrus Veeser, an associate professor of history at Bentley University.

Veeser said one aspect of the movement -- a lack of clarity, or diversity of agendas that makes it impossible to reduce to a single theme -- is both a strength and a weakness.

The protestors "have a very real commitment to not reduce [their cause] to a single plea," Veeser said. "There was one handwritten sign that read: ‘We’re not disorganized; It’s just that the U.S. has so many issues.’ The idea is that the problems are so intertwined, complex and multiple that they just won’t fit on one sign."

He said the movement is different than previous protests.

“There really isn’t a precedent" for the Occupy movement, he said." It combines direct action with a very indirect agenda. People have been motivated to put their bodies on the line, but in the past the demands were pretty clear... Everyone there is making a sacrifice to be there," he noted.

Though homeless and down on his luck to begin with, even Lavi has sacrificed. He had his own tent and camping gear when he joined the protest, he said, but lost about $600 worth of equipment when police cleared out the 'occupiers' from the northern part of Dewey Square on Columbus Day, the day of the largest Occupy Boston protest. He now lives in a communal tent with three to five others, outside of South Station.

As winter approaches, Lavi expects the movement to continue. His only concern is that a major snowfall could disrupt the protest -- something he hopes won't happen. Many of the tents have been waterproofed and lined with blankets, in an attempt to brave the cold weather.

“There’s a good number of people in this camp that are committed to staying. I am one of those people,” Lavi said proudly.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Samantha Laine, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel , as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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